Saturday, November 28, 2015

Travels in the time of communism

For some time, I have followed Anne Applebaum, and her husband Radek Sikorski. Anne is a journalist/historian who has written about Eastern Europe.  Here (, she tells of how the time she spent studying in Leningrad in 1985 helps her to understand the modern world. Like Anne, I spent time behind the "Iron Curtain" in the time of communism. And, like Anne, I think it has had a long term effect on my life. However, I am only now starting to write about some of those topics.

I grew up in the US, but, during my teens and twenties, my father made several trips for scientific exchange visits to various countries in Eastern Europe. My mother and I were fortunate to accompany him on several trips. My mother had the advantage of being fluent in Polish. I came to learn some Polish, and also improved my German. I learned to read Cyrillic on one trip to the Soviet Union when I was handed a map in Russian and learned the road signs were in Russian. I was the navigator. We were given a deadline by which time we had to arrive at our hotel or else... So, I quickly learned to match the letters on the map and the signs, and we arrived on time. Later, I studied Russian in school.

That is one of many stories of my travels in that era. I came to realize that the people in the various countries of Eastern Europe were no different than the people at home, with one major difference, they were very cicumspect about what they spoke about in public, or until they knew they could trust you. Very few had been allowed to travel abroad. And, often they had trouble believing that Americans could travel as we did.

Those travels taught me, too, about life under communism. Even though I never saw the worst of communism. That I got to hear about from relatives, both in Europe and from Europe. From relatives who had survived gulags and made it to the West, and from relatives in Poland who were still hiding a cousin who had spoken out against the Soviets and so had an execution order hanging over his head. I wonder if I would have spoken and written these stories sooner if I, too, had not internalized the censorship.

So, like Anne, I see frightening comparisons in some of the propaganda and actions of Russia now. I see the suppression of Memorial, and know that there is an effort to again forget those who suffered in gulags and labor settlements. I see the attempt at rehabilitating Stalin, regarding him as a great leader and again showing his portraits. And, I, too, see the invasions of the little green men and weaponry to help Russian speakers in Ukraine. And, now, Russian forces shoring up the regime of Assad in Syria. I agree with Anne Applebaum that these events are reminiscent of the past. And, so, these actions concern me with what they might mean for the future.


  1. While I have not yet read the book reviewed here ( by Robert Gellately, I have read those mentioned by Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder and recomend them highly.

  2. Another interesting article by Applebaum (,149121,19110849,putin-i-jego-zacni-przyjaciele-applebaum.html?disableRedirects=true) about people that might have been called fellow travelers in the past. She says she is unsure what to call them in this new era. It is in Polish, but can be translated by Google translate.